Science Fairs Inside Out

Research and Experimentation/Design

With this step in the science fair project process, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re doing a science project and are applying the Scientific Method with an experiment, or an engineering project and are applying the Engineering Method to create a design, you still have to start with research.

Research is all about finding out more about your topic. To conduct research, you need to go to the library and read books and magazines, browse the internet, visit locations that might have background material like a zoo or museum or lab, and talk with your teachers, scientists and/or professionals. The more you learn about your topic, the better your project will come out and the better prepared you’ll be to answer the questions by the judges.

Let’s see what happens when you put the following phrase into an internet search engine: “compare natural sponges and synthetic sponges.”  Here are some of the results:

With just a little bit of research you realize that there are different types of uses for sponges. Were you surprised to see that window cleaners really care about this topic?

So, this means you would need to narrow down your search – will you do your project on using different types of sponges for cleaning the house, or for cleaning your body? Make sure you use your science journal to record your background research and any books or internet sites you have visited. You may end up realizing that you can use the information in your report or on your display board.

Can you think of other people who might think sponge absorption is an important topic? How about restaurants or hotels? Maybe you can talk with window cleaners, or restaurant owners or hotel managers in your neighborhood about this subject. Maybe after a few conversations or more research, you might decide to alter the project to determine which types of sponges hold more germs or less germs.

After researching your topic, you should now be ready to come up with your Hypothesis. The hypothesis is an “educated guess” about the question you’re trying to answer. The hypothesis is presented as a statement – it’s not a question. To prove or disprove your hypothesis, you conduct an Experiment. There are many ways to test your hypothesis, there is no one right way to do this. Your hypothesis for the sponge test might read, “If I test artificial and natural sponges, I believe natural sponges will hold more water.”

Now it’s time to plan your procedures and conduct your Experiment. What are you going to do to test your hypothesis? What materials are needed, and is the cost of buying materials a factor in your decision? What exactly is being tested? What parts of your experiment will stay the same? What data are you going to collect?

There are two parts to an experiment: the controls and the variables. A control is the part of the experiment that stays constant so your experiment can be repeated with the same results.  If your experiment involves testing sponges, a control would be to always use the same bowl. Also make sure the same amount of water is used in each trial.

Variables are the parts of the experiment you change to test specific conditions.  Using the same sponge example, a variable may be to use three types of synthetic and three types of natural sponges to see which holds the largest amount of water.

In the experiment with the sponge, here are some materials you might need:

  • Different types of synthetic and natural sponges,
  • A bowl or large measuring cup of water, ensuring that you’ll always start with the same amount of water, and
  • A way to determine how much water each sponge holds, such as a beaker or measuring cup

Here’s an example of a sponge experiment called, “Which type of sponge holds more water?”

The experiment itself should be simple and repeatable.  It’s very important that the experiment be repeatable.  Also, remember that judges like lots and lots of data and charts and graphs, so design your experiment with lots of repetitions.  You can’t run an experiment once and use that data; run a simple experiment 10-15 times and take an average (the sum of the experimental data divided by the number of trials).

Experiments should always have at least three trials. It’s important to conduct your experiment several times because if you get different results on one of the three times, maybe it’s because an error was made. Or, if you’re doing a plant experiment and are using seeds to grow something, maybe one of the seeds was bad.

Make observations frequently and consistently. If your cat knocks over the original bowl of water, make sure you note this and that as a result you had to start over. In your science journal, make sure you not only record the details of your procedure, but also your observations.

When you present your science fair project to judges, they might ask you about other applications for your research. They’ll also ask you what you’ve done in your experiment that’s different from other similar experiments, so you should plan to refer to the results of other experiments you’ve learned or read about.